When Norristown Garden Club members began organizing the group's 65th annual holiday house tour, one special home was on their wish list: an 18th-century fieldstone farmhouse in Ambler, Christmas-ready with its green doors and red shutters.
After owners Beth Ann and Don Neill agreed to have their residence on the Dec. 12 tour, club members discovered a bonanza inside: Beth Ann's collection of 275 Santas.
During the holidays, a Claus in a balloon and another in a prop plane fly from the ceiling fan in the Neills' den. Other Santas swing golf clubs on a shelf behind the leather couch.
In the powder room, dozens of three-inch-high Kris Kringles in fur-trimmed suits and St. Nicks in bishop's robes rest on a chair-rail ledge custom-crafted to accommodate the tiny figures.
For the holiday tour, club members lined bigger Santas and potted plants up a back staircase. They filled a windowsill with more plants and Men in Red.
The collection began 29 years ago, when the Neills received a hand-carved St. Nicholas from family friends on their wedding day in late December. This year, that foot-high figure has a place of honor on the dining room mantel in the oldest part of the house. Beth Ann's largest piece, a three-foot Santa head created by a Bucks County artist, leans next to a colonial-era fireplace hung with copper pots.
The original 1768 house had just one room on each of its three stories. A living room, added in 1799, features a Federal-style fireplace and moldings. For the house tour, club members made arrangements of evergreens, white branches, and candles to harmonize with the formal black-and-white decor.
Built in the 1960s were a sunroom at the west end of the house and the east wing, with a kitchen and family room and den on the first floor, and bedrooms and baths on the second and third.
Since purchasing the property 14 years ago, the Neills have restored the 18th-century section, updated and renovated newer additions, and added a swimming pool. They installed casement windows and raised the ceiling in the sunroom. In the kitchen, they replaced the flooring, dishwasher, and cooktop while retaining cherry cabinets, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, and a double oven.
Upstairs, they converted a bedroom into a master bath with two sinks, a walk-in shower, and a deep soaking tub at the center. Grandchildren Jack, 9, and Harry, 4, love taking baths there, Beth Ann said.
The Neills have a daughter, Maggie, and Don has two daughters, Kristin and Kelly, from a previous marriage.
Beth Ann's Santa collection is stored on the third floor. The mini-Clauses in the powder room are the first to go up, last to come down.
Their placement, she says, evokes happy memories of the source of each Santa.
"This year was the most fun of all, with Jack acting as an assistant," she says.
Don Neill, an avid hunter and golfer, has his own collections. Golf balls and scorecard pencils from courses all over the world are artfully displayed in the den, along with his hunting trophies. Heads of a black bear, long-horned sheep, and antlered deer are mounted on the wall. Three game birds (a pheasant, a duck and a woodcock) perch on an armoire.
Don, 69, is a real estate broker. Beth Ann, 57, is corporate director of public relations and marketing for Abington Health.
"Don has more time for trips," she says, though together they went to Germany for a golf tournament, with a side trip to Paris.
The hunting trophies inspired the garden club's members. After draping a wreath around a huge elk's head in the sunroom, they set up a Christmas tree nearby and festooned it with handmade ornaments and fox-headed dolls dressed in red hunting suits.
When they discovered a stuffed gray fox Don hunted, club members wanted it for the sunroom's coffee table, surrounded by greens.
"I vetoed the idea," Beth Ann says. "That fox has a mean face, and I didn't want to look at it first thing Christmas morning."
She liked other garden club concepts, such as the one in the greenhouse: A potting shelf has been transformed into a miniature enchanted forest created from moss, dried leaves, pinecones, logs, white lights, and winged fairy dolls.